In the late 1980s, three massive wildfires burned in China, Canada, and the United States — fires that in hindsight were a harbinger of the huge, climate change-driven conflagrations now destroying millions of acres in the western U.S.
In the spring and summer of 1987, one of the largest wildfires ever recorded — the Black Dragon Fire — spread in hot, dry conditions from northeastern China into the taiga of the Russian Far East. Entire towns were wiped out in Heilongjiang province as walls of flames more than 100 feet high, driven by 60 mile-per-hour winds, ripped through everything in their path. More than 18 million acres burned, mainly in Siberia, and at least 220 people died.
Two years later, excessive heat and drought fed more than 1,100 wildfires in Manitoba, eventually burning 8 million acres.
But it was the 1988 wildfires in Yellowstone National Park, which began with a series of lightning storms, that captivated the world’s attention. Fire managers initially allowed the fires to burn as they had done a number of times since 1972 when the National Park Service embraced the “let-burn” policy. But as the summer evolved into the hottest and driest in 110 years, the conflagrations quickly spun out of control, consuming 800,000 acres — more than a third of the park — and overwhelming all efforts to suppress them.
“The winds came again and again and the worst-case scenario happened almost weekly,” said Richard Rothermel, then a researcher at the Northern Forest Fire Laboratory. “It was an amazing season. Nobody had seen this combination of weather and fires before.”
In the three decades since those fires, hotter, drier weather has only increased the scale, intensity, and frequency of destructive wildfires worldwide. The buzz among wildfire scientists these days revolves around the rising number of “firsts” that have occurred in the last 15 to 20 years, from massive fires spawning tornadoes and fire-generated thunderstorms, to a growing number of fires in the Arctic (including Greenland), and unprecedented wildfires burning in Australia, Europe, and Southeast Asia.
In the 1980s, when wildfire scientist Mike Flannigan was conducting a study of a possible link between global warming and the dramatic increase in wildfires, he was on the fence. The uncertainty didn’t last long. He and a colleague in the Canadian Forest Service predicted much of what we are seeing now. Flannigan, however, is still shocked by the magnitude of what is happening this year, with more than 5 million acres burning this summer in California, Oregon, and Washington, and vast bushfires in Australia in 2019 and 2020.
“Unprecedented and devastating bushfires in Australia this past fire season burned over 45 million acres,” said Flannigan, director of the newly created Canadian Wildfire Strategic Network. “Arctic fires are releasing record amounts of greenhouse gases. We expected these increases in fire activity, but they are happening faster than anticipated.”
Indeed, just as global warming has propelled the Arctic Ocean past a tipping point that is expected to lead to a largely ice-free Arctic in summer in the coming decades, wildfire scientists say that rising global temperatures and worsening droughts mean that the world has entered a new era of megafires. Scientists say that wildfires are behaving in unprecedented ways and that the traditional methods of fighting them are proving inadequate to this new reality.